A New Richard II

By Rob Packer

In this Olympic year, London has gone Shakespeare-mad: an entire run of the canon at the Globe each in a different language or dialect, an exciting program at the same theatre this summer, talks, and adaptation after adaptation on the BBC. If this is 2012, I can only imagine what will happen in 2016, the 400th anniversary of what must be the saddest day in the history of literature: 23 April when both Shakespeare and Cervantes died.

Last night was Richard II on the BBC, the first part of The Hollow Crown that will run through both Henry IV and Henry V. I’d never seen Richard II before (it isn’t performed all that frequently) and I really enjoyed it—and if you’re in the UK, you can judge for yourself.

Some thoughts, more or less at random:

  • I’d last seen Ben Whishaw (King Richard) in the 2008 film adapation of Brideshead Revisited, which had the bizarre—if appropriate—effect of forever linking Richard’s money-grabbing sybaritism with Sebastian Flyte, another “upstart unthrift”. Even his teddy bear, Aloysius, was recast as a macaque.
  • Richard likes dressing up. This is particularly true when Richard returns to Harlech dressed as Lawrence of Arabia from spending his ill-gotten gains on a war in Ireland, to find himself friendless and his kingdom in revolt. A scene later he is dressed in a suit of golden armour flanked by golden archangel cut-outs.
  • Religious imagery. When Richard is deposed, he accuses his erstwhile noblemen:
         Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,
         Showing outward pity, yet you Pilates
         Have here delivered me to my sour cross,
         And water cannot wash away your sin.
    Obviously, Richard has a Christ-complex, but the imagery often felt like reconstructions of mediaeval religious painting and sculpture and was excellent, if a bit overdone. Richard goes to his arraignment on a donkey and he stands before his accusers with arms outstretched. He is killed with a crossbow (not a spoiler, this is a tragedy) and he stands there in a loincloth bleeding pocked with arrows like a St Sebastian. And when his body is brought before King Henry, he is in the same loincloth and the camera pans upwards to a wooden crucifixion hanging from the roof.

Visually, it was very rich, even if it played into the mediaeval romanticism that you see so often. Maybe a last gasp of decadence before the start of the Wars of the Roses or maybe the whole series is like this? I’d prefer the first over the second, but here’s John of Gaunt (played by Patrick Stewart in the adaptation) and his doom-laden elegy of an England on the slide:

Methinks I am a prophet new-inspired,
And thus, expiring, do foretell of him.
His rash, fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves.
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short.
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes.
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
The blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renownèd for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre, in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessèd Mary’s son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

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2 Responses to A New Richard II

  1. leifhendrik says:

    Must remember April 23 each year. Thanks for pointing out the double significance of the day. One of my goals: to be able to quote Cervantes for every occasion in life.

  2. A fine and interesting post, full of history

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